Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 April 2017

Poland – President’s party wins absolute majority in parliamentary elections

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 26 October 2015

After the presidential election in May this year and the referendum in September, Poles were called to the polls once again yesterday to vote in elections to the Sejm (the politically dominant lower chamber) and the Senat (upper). According to first exit polls and results, the ‘Law and Justice’ party (PiS) of recently elected president Andrzej Duda has clearly won the election and – according to first exit polls – might even be able to form the first single-party majority government in Poland’s recent democratic history.

TVP exit poll

The victory of PiS had been foreshadowed by the victory of its candidate Andrzej Duda in the presidential elections earlier this year, yet achieving an outright majority in parliament had been seen as unlikely as smaller parties were assumed to enter the Sejm. Having won 39.1% of the vote, PiS will take up to 242 seats in the 460-seat Sejm. Until now, only the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) once came close to winning an absolute majority of seats (it won seats in 2001). PiS fought the election campaign with their deputy chairman Beata Szydlo as candidate for Prime Minister. However, Szydlo – even if eventually elected Prime Minister – is unlikely to enjoy much discretion in her decisions. After it had been widely rumoured that former Prime Minister and PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski would still pull the strings from behind the scenes, the fact that he (and not Szydlo) was the first to address co-partisans and the press on election night was universally interpreted as a sign of his continued dominance in the party. In 2005, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, too, held back on his ambition to premiership to increase the chances of his twin brother Lech to win the presidential election. However, only half a year later he took over the position of Prime Minister and led the last PiS government until the 2007 elections.

The PO experienced significant losses, not the least due to appearance of the neo-liberal ‘Nowoczesna’ party, but still performed better than predicted by several pre-election polls. It remains by far the largest opposition party with around 133 seats and was thus punished significantly less severely by voters than the Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS) in 2001 or the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in 2005. Nowoczesna has not been the only new party to successfully enter parliament. ‘KUKIZ’, the party of Pawel Kukiz – the surprising runner-up of the first round of this year’s presidential elections – gained 9% of the popular vote and is thus the third largest party in parliament (44 projected seats). Two other new parties – KORWIN lead by far-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke and the leftwing ‘Razem’ (Together) seem to have failed to cross the 5% threshold according to national projections. The new electoral alliance ‘Zjednoczona Lewica’ (United Left), made up of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, ‘Your Movement’ and a number of smaller leftist parties also failed to cross the electoral threshold (which lies at 8% for electoral coalitions). This is the first time since Poland’s return to democracy that the SLD, is not represented in parliament (and in fact no other left-wing party). The Polish Peasant Party (PSL) is thus the only political party to have been continuously represented in parliament since 1989. Nevertheless, as it gained only 5.2% of the vote according to exit polls it may still find itself out of the Sejm, too.

President Andrzej Duda will certainly not hesitate to appoint a PiS-led government, but it remains to be seen what policy implications this constellation with bring. The last time when both presidency and government were controlled by PiS in 2005-2007, Poland underwent a phase of diplomatic isolation. A strong anti-Russian sentiment (many members and activists still blame the death of late president Lech Kaczynski on Vladimir Putin) and euroscepticism are firmly anchored in the party which will not make Poland an easy partner to work with. Domestically, PiS could once again try to increase state (and ultimately party) control over the judiciary and media – Jaroslaw Kaczynski has long expressed an admiration for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, yet at the moment changes as controversial as in Hungary seem unlikely.